Standardized Testing: America’s Newest Pastime?

America's Oldest Pastime

Last Wednesday (April 8th) I happened to catch a PBS News Hour report, part of their “American Graduate” series, on standardized testing. See full video report. It focused on one school in Washington, D.C. – Jefferson Middle School – that has literally rallied behind the prospect of a Common Core Test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PAARC. The report began with a pep rally; kids cheering and shouting affirmations. Kids are rewarded – given gift cards – for exhibiting test ready behaviors. Jefferson’s principal, Natalie Gordon, and assistant principal, Gregory Dohmann, interviewed by PBS reporter, Kavatha Cardoza agreed that testing is an anxiety filled time for kids and faculty. But, their efforts to couch the test in the trappings of a sporting event have, they say, changed student attitudes. Jefferson’s kids have shown consistent improvement in performance over the past several years.  Now, administrators say, Jefferson’s kids actually look forward to the test.

I wonder about the latest edition of this high-stakes test. Listening to there “sporting arena” perspective, and the new requirements that the test be completed on line and within a certain time frame gave me pause.

  • Are there technical glitches? Yes. Brittani Ogden, the school’s testing coordinator said, “Just being unfamiliar with how long it would take students to get into their testing locations, how long it would take us to read directions. And so everything got kind of pushed back. We had to alter our schedule.”
  • Do the kids have ample keyboarding skills? Some do. Some don’t. Staff has restructured classes, so that children have more opportunities to practice basic keyboarding skills using 60 new computers.
  • Do kids worry about not finishing? Yes. Student Nevaeh Edwards says, “I didn’t finish on time because I had one question unanswered. I felt bad because I was wondering how it was going to affect my score on the test.”
  • Does the PAARC ask kids to solve multi-step problems that take critical thinking? Yes.
  • Do the kids spend time learning this type of testing format? Yes.
  • Does this type of instruction in complex problem solving take time? Yes. Math teacher Latisha Nero has been working with students all year on the tougher standards that focus on complex problem solving.
  • Are the teachers and kids still worried even though everyone’s up for the game? Yes. Nero says, “I think we’re all worried about it, only because we do understand that it is a very, very big jump for our students, because it’s a completely different way of thinking.” Student Evaeh Edwards adds her concern: “I’m a little nervous because we’re probably going to be compared to the other states like Ohio and New York. But I’m really happy at the same time because we do have really, really smart children at Jefferson and we can show what we know to the rest of the country.”

But here’s what I really want to know:

  • What does standardized testing actually measure? Jefferson’s Principal claims: “I want my kids to know that they are as smart as the best kids in New York or California or wherever else they’re taking the PARCC. I want them to know that. And, right now, there’s no way to know that they’re going to be able to compete when they go to Harvard or University of Pennsylvania or Dartmouth.”
  • Does standardized testing really measure how smart a student is? Not many teachers would agree that it does. Are we doing our students a disservice equating intellect with a single once-a-year test?
  • Does standardized testing alone measure how well a student will be prepared to compete for the ivy league? What about other skills like initiative, perseverance, resilience? I agree with Tony Wagner. Neither of us think testing indicates assured success in college.

Schools, despite their often well-groomed playing fields and spiffy uniforms, should be wary of adopting the athletics model and framing testing as a high-priority sporting event. Contests of athletic prowess, similar to standardized testing, prohibit a ‘do over’ once the last out is called. This inability to learn from mistakes seems antithetical to learning. And unlike sporting events, where the winner and looser are instantly determined, the outcome of standardized testing remains undecided for many, many months. This, too, is contrary to the principles of teaching and learning. When education is distilled into high stakes winners and losers, when it’s all about the training, the incentives, the hype and adrenalin, there is no room for the reflection and reiteration inherent in deep learning.

Schools participating in America’s standardized testing program are certainly free to promote these activities in any way they see fit. But, after viewing the PBS segment, I have to ask: Have we, as a nation, become so sports obsessed that we cannot reckon a different model within which to parse standardized testing?

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